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The Work Project: Imagining Transition

Image: Hilary Cottam

By Hilary Cottam

This is the fourth blog in a new series about the future of work. The series reflects on workshops that were held in five locations across Britain over the past two years. The project has been generously funded by Laudes Foundation, Open Society Foundation and James Anderson.

In the first blog, I set out the context for this project: a shifting socio-economic paradigm driven by technology change, looming environmental catastrophe and the unaddressed legacies of injustice that mean we must think again about work. In the second blog I wrote about working time, in the third about care. Here I focus on strategies of transition: how we could create and move into new forms of just and generative work.

A t the beginning of the workshops I asked each participant to draw their lives on a piece of paper which showed a simple age timeline on one axis and a positive/negative symbol on the other, as shown in the above image.

As sharpies squeaked across the page, participants started to chat to one another. For everyone the story was the same: life has steep ups and downs; the birth of a child, the pain of a divorce, debt, a new home, a job lost, a promotion gained and — for some — a second chance that brought a new qualification, hope and the chance to grow.

Second chances

Second chances are hard to come by, and their scarcity was much discussed. Most participants felt they had been blocked in some way: a single mother without support, a failure at formal schooling, talents that went unrecognised, a decision (or encouragement) in one’s twenties to train for something no longer tolerable. Few had found paths out of the cul-de-sac, but those who had invariably talked about a serendipitous connection — an encounter with someone able to make a bridge to the new. They also rated their lives at the upper end of the positive axis.

The reality is that we all need (repeated) second chances and this need is likely to grow. I think about transition in four (interdependent) ways:

  • Life stages: the move from primary to secondary school, leaving home, health impairment, change in physical ability, the birth of a child or our own ageing and shifting priorities;
  • Technology impacts: altering the nature of our work, the pace, working conditions or the size of a team;
  • Ecological impacts: the need to live in new ways and to do new work that is restorative, within the limits of social and planetary boundaries;
  • Economic shifts: a transition driven by the shock of a crisis, inflationary pressures, a pandemic, or simply an urgent personal need to earn more to feed a growing family.

We’ve had our stuffing knocked out.’ Most workshop participants had experienced economic shock such as the closure of the mines, the international relocation of jobs or the periodic contractions and downsizing endemic to the current model of capitalism: ‘remember when BAE took away all those thousands of jobs in the 90’s …there was nothing, nothing’.

The new work organisations designed by participants, and the focus of next week’s blog, might be described as transition clubs. Participants expected there to be continued transitions and talked about how they needed to access new connections, knowledge about what’s out there, an income to retrain and psychological support. The latter was an acknowledgement that most change, even if it is good, involves loss which needs time and support to process.

There is a strong desire for new forms of high-quality learning. These were not conversations about ‘skills’ or ‘certificates’, but expressions of a deeper desire to stretch and grow: ‘we want to move with the times and really learn’.

In his book End State, James Plunkett tells the story of the US GI bill of 1945. This bill, which was grossly disfigured by the lack of support for black veterans and prompted by fear of unrest, was nonetheless a radical piece of education policy. Generous financial support was offered ($500 a year when Harvard fees were $400 a year) because policy makers expected low take up. They reasoned that most vets would choose lower end vocational courses. But trusted to choose their future for themselves, veterans aimed high — signing up to study science, law, engineering and liberal arts. In 1946 Harvard enrolment doubled as a result. By 1948 national college enrolments stood at over 2 million with veterans (6 percent of the population) making up 40% of enrolments. As the American economy rode the wave of a new technology revolution (mass production) these veterans in fact were acquiring just the skills they and their country needed.

The contrast with the current reality is painful. A rhetoric of ‘life-long learning’ means for most low-grade skill-based courses, which are employer-led, hard to access and woefully under-funded. From primary school through to skills-based courses the model remains one of industrial learning — usually classroom based and rooted in the individual ability to memorise facts and tasks to a level that can be surveilled by routine testing in order to obtain a certificate of some sort.

But in this century the need is for imagination, for creative team-based abilities, for spiritual enquiry and above all to acquire the capability for learning that can underpin both rich lives (the focus of the second blog) and strong communities with new forms of economy at their heart. I’m interested to learn who is thinking about this. Radical experiments such as the different forms of curriculum and learning at School 21, the second chances given to young people at Rekindle School, or ideas ‘beyond schooling’ as developed by David Hargreaves are few and far between in policies, writing and action that remain narrowly focused on skills. But — as every workshop participant articulated — without a new form of learning (and new forms of funding to support such learning) there is no transition.

If participants were deeply engaged with the challenges of personal life stage transitions, how to learn and the plight caused by economic shocks, only gig workers talked openly about technology driven transitions. Gig workers were very much interested in how they might take ownership of the technology themselves. But most participants were of the opinion that technology would affect the jobs of others, not their own despite there being often clear evidence to the contrary within their workplace.

(Un)Natural Questions

What about the environmental challenge? Time in nature** was always placed at the heart of a good working life. But a love of nature cannot be equated with a concern for ‘the environment’ which was frequently dismissed as an abstract issue pertinent to the London based, elites ‘just another thing to beat us with’, as more than one participant observed. I worked with employees at two ‘green’ companies where participants had minimum wage jobs packing and assembling components. They felt no alignment with the companies’ mission and were clear that they would switch jobs for better pay or — just as importantly — greater respect and better working conditions (in one place surveillance was a challenge, in another freezing work conditions).

What about the need for ecological transition? From frozen food processing to the packing of fast fashion, a significant number of those who have joined the workshops in the last two years are employed in industries where work will need to cease or be significantly reduced if we are to have any hope of reaching climate goals. It is particularly striking that those who have the highest skilled/ best paid jobs that need relatively low educational qualifications (for example an industrial welder) are concentrated in carbon intensive industries. Trade Unions of course are aware of this conundrum, it is why many have adopted ambivalent positions on the climate agenda.

Altered States

What is the strategy for transition? Participants tended to avoid this subject, and policy makers do the same. A shared dissimulation of potentially devastating impact. The experience of unsupported post-industrial transition in the 1980s is something too many families are still living in the places I have worked. It seems inconceivable and inadvisable to think that we could enter another greater transition without a strategy. And yet the new education policies, financial investments and the work plans required are nowhere to be seen.

But we can imagine a transition strategy: multiple paths into new work — such as care — with transition incomes to support re-training and learning. It’s urgent work and requires a new sense of priorities and values and new forms of partnership between mission-oriented policy at the centre and local institutions, people and employers in every place.

In studying previous technology revolutions (and rooted in the scholarship of Carlota Perez) I have identified four groups or actors that are required to bring about transition, a path from the old paradigm to the new. These are:

  • organic intellectuals: those who can produce new ideas inspiring global imaginations in all disciplines;
  • organised civil society: artists, movement makers, labour unions, activists, those who bring creativity, knowledge and above all lived experience of another way;
  • new industrialists: business leaders who, walking in the footsteps of enlightened forbearers, will challenge their peers believing that a new era is only possible with the design of new social systems and in particular new norms for labour (the New Industrialists will be the subject of a future blog);
  • the state: a new generation of leaders who will dare to forge new alliances and design new frameworks.

The state, as I have argued before, is critical: the prime mover, able to lay out the framework, the guidelines for investment and the principles that must govern a collective project such as transition. Our current impasse is rooted in the state’s own imprisonment in industrial structures and mindsets.

But this transition cannot be imposed from the top: it will be rooted in new forms of horizontal institutions and relationships. This means the local state will play a critical role and in Britain and the U.S., elements of the local state are more forward thinking. Despite the lack of financial resources and often a lack of access to networks, those in the local state understand local realities and many from Barrow to Ayrshire have actively fostered strong and diverse horizontal bonds. This is one reason that the next phase of the Work Project will be further work in local place: an experiment that brings diverse actors together in new institution making — the subject of next week’s blog.

Hilary Cottam is a social activist, the author of Radical Help and an Honorary Professor at UCL Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose @hilarycottam

The Work Project* is made possible by a grant from Laudes Foundation. I’m grateful to the Open Society Foundation and to James Anderson for financial support which funded the workshops in 5 UK locations between 2020 and 2021 and I would like to thank the workshop participants and my local hosts in Barking, Barnsley, Barrow, East Ayrshire, Grimsby and Peckham.

** Participants are each given a pack of 72 small cards (including a number of blank cards) as a resource from which to start to consider the elements of a good working life. I will write about my working methods in the final blog of this series.



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